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BOSTON — As the disaster in Japan worsens, President Obama has ordered a safety review of all U.S. nuclear power plants. One that's under particular scrutiny is in Massachusetts. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth — built a year after the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Tokyo and with an operating license that expires next year — is asking to have its license renewed for 20 years.
Massachusetts sits within 50 miles of three nuclear power plants. Because of this, Gov. Deval Patrick says he’d like to take a regional approach.
"For me it’s more about regional involvement because the issues aren’t limited to state lines," Patrick said. "We have a stake in what the decisions will be around the facility up on the Vermont line; the same is true out in Seabrook (N.H.)"
For a power plant like Pilgrim to stay online, it needs permission from the federal government, specifically the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Massachusetts really has no power over whether that plant gets a new license because the Legislature gave up that right with deregulation in the 1990s.
“Nuclear power has a lot to say for it, but they have not solved the question of the disposal of the waste and that is concerning to me — like it is to many citizens."Gov. Deval Patrick
"The steps we can take are the steps we have taken in that we are very involved in commenting in the re-commissioning process at the federal level, in both the facility down in Plymouth and the one up on the Vermont line," Patrick said.
But activists want the governor to take a firmer stand because of the dangers of nuclear power.
"I absolutely think we should be shutting down every nuclear power plant in the United States," said John Rosenthal, an anti-nuclear activist who fought construction of the Seabook Power Plant in New Hampshire in the 1970s.
"The reactors at Pilgrim are the same reactors as the Fukushima nuclear plant," Rosenthal said. "And the nuclear spent fuel pools are the same situation; they are not in inadequate containment structures. All the nuclear waste that’s been generated since 1972 is sitting on site in containment buildings not designed for long-term storage."
It's true the pools holding the spent fuel rods were not designed for long-term storage, says David Tarantino, the spokesman for Pilgrim Station. They were built to hold them for about five years but have been used for 39 and are nearly full. But Tarantino says they pass muster with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"And they have constant inspections and they have determined the spent fuel pool storage is safe," he said.
Charles Forsberg agrees. He's the head of MIT’s nuclear fuel cycle study.
"In the short term you store them in pools and in long term you put them in dry cask storage," Forsberg said. "If you store it in those containers nothing is going to happen."
Here's the catch: Pilgrim doesn’t have dry cask storage. All of the spent fuel rods are in pools. If the license renewal is granted, they must build dry cask storage.
Pilgrim Watch, a local grassroots organization, opposes renewal. It wants, among other things, safer storage for spent fuel rods and heightened security to protect against attacks. The environmental group MASSPIRG also wants Pilgrim to close, says executive director Janet Domenitz.
"We’ve been saying that nuclear power is not safe and that there are better alternatives," she said.
The Massachusetts Attorney General's Office legally challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2006, saying it didn’t address the risks of severe accidents in the spent fuel pools at Pilgrim, which could be caused by a terrorist attack, human errors, equipment malfunction or natural disaster. The petition was denied and the office appealed. Pilgrim says it improved safety after Sept. 11.
Patrick says he’s not convinced nuclear power is absolutely safe.
"Nuclear power has a lot to say for it, but they have not solved the question of the disposal of the waste and that is concerning to me — like it is to many citizens," he said.
Pilgrim is asking for a 20-year renewal of its license. It was built in 1972 by Bechtel, the same company the built the Big Dig.
This program aired on March 18, 2011.